A New Dawn at the U.N.?

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U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres in 2012 via Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres made a series of statements that were unusual for the world body and its chief executive. He vowed to take action to end anti-Semitism, and called denial of Israel’s right to exist a modern form of anti-Jewish hatred.

Granted, he was speaking to the World Jewish Congress, an audience that was very receptive to his observations and promises. Nonetheless, this is the first time to our knowledge that the United Nations’ highest leader has spoken so forcefully on the issue of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias.

Guterres, who became secretary general last fall, voiced what many of us have been saying for a while: Israel should not be treated to a double standard. “A modern form of anti-Semitism is the denial of the right of the State of Israel to exist,” he said. “As secretary-general of the United Nations I can say that the State of Israel needs to be treated as any other state, with exactly the same rules.”

Guterres did not commit to agree with every one of Israel’s policies, nor did he need to. And he spoke in favor of a Palestinian state. But he stated clearly, and in no uncertain terms, that he supports “the absolutely undeniable right of Israel to exist and to live in peace and security with its neighbors.”

He also called the Holocaust “the most heinous crime in the history of mankind,” promised to marshal the United Nations to eliminate anti-Semitism, and declared: “You can be absolutely sure … I will be in the front line of the struggle against anti-Semitism, and to make sure the United Nations is able to take all possible actions for anti-Semitism to be condemned, and if possible, eradicated from the face of the earth.”

Welcome words, to be sure. But will they be followed by action to bring about a less hostile environment for Israel in a world forum that for decades has treated the Jewish state as the bastard child of the community of nations?

Perhaps a good measure of the depth of Gutteres’ commitment will be whether he will express the same sentiments in front of less agreeable audiences in the General Assembly and the Security Council. And it will be interesting to see whether he will carry the same messages to U.N. bodies such as UNESCO, UNRWA and the U.N. Human Rights Council that are notable for treating Israel with a double standard. We certainly hope so.

Given that Guterres’ comments come after several forceful pro-Israel speeches by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, we are hopeful that we are witnessing the beginning of a new era at the United Nations. But in order to effect such change, the secretary general must use the full powers of his office to make it happen.